There is a certain danger in eating at some of the finest restaurants in the world^1: not only do you begin to expect more from higher price-points, but you also learn to recognize when it’s not working, or when a chef’s aim outstrips his abilities.
What kind of restaurant is Columbus, Ohio’s M? It’s the kind of place that is beautifully and tastefully appointed, then inexplicably lit with garish neon that cycles through the nuclear rainbow of colors so slowly you wonder, “What the fuck is going on?” It’s the kind of restaurant that had a Dead Tissue Seminar in full view of the dining room, the video screens for which were hidden by far too transparent curtains. (I shit you not. When we pointed it out to our waiter, a medical probe graphically digging into blackened flesh, he apologized, laughed, and said, “We’ve had so much worse.”) It’s the kind of place that still has a website featuring that most gauche of 90s touches, music you cannot mute^2. It’s the kind of restaurant that will charge you nine dollars for an order of french fries, ketchup, and garlic mayonnaise, and misspell “aioli” on the menu.
It’s the kind of restaurant that simply adores the smell of its own farts. M has the feel of a restaurant as seen through the eyes of someone who has once eaten at a great restaurant in a big city, but doesn’t really understand it. There’s no grace, no subtlety, only broad brash strokes (and I’m not just talking about that terrible mural on the back wall).
That’s not to say it doesn’t almost excel. Truthfully, every one of our dishes (save for the King Crab starter) could have been excellent if not for various, and easily remedied, mistakes. Sadly, though, every one of our dishes, save for that starter, had a problem that undermined it. M is a restaurant defined by its near-misses.
To start off, our server (and the people who refilled water and helped bring the courses) were wonderful. They could not (legally) have been nicer or more attentive.
We started off with cocktails: Amy had the surprisingly delicious London Greyhound (Beefeater gin, pink peppercorn infused St. Germain elderflower, fresh grapefruit juice, and a haphazard rim of Himalayan sea salt) which we recreated fairly accurately when we got home the next day (sans that whole pink peppercorn infusing bit). I had their margarita, made of Herradurra Silver, jalapeño infused agave nectar (a really great idea), fresh lime juice, and (yet again) a hit-and-miss rim of smoked sea salt. These drinks set the tone for our evening: fantastic ingredients, but inexpertly executed (even Chi-Chi’s was able to salt the rim of a glass).
For appetizers we had the King Crab and the “Foie”. The crab was “[b]utter poached Dutch Harbor Alaskan King Crab”, it was served in a glass cask, and there was a giant bay leaf in there with the butter and the crab. This was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the best thing we were served at M. The accompanying crostini was an afterthought, but that crab… wow.
The foie gras (with pork belly confit, black lentil ragout, truffle pate, and a cherry jus), on the other hand, was full of Almosts. It hadn’t been seared quite long enough, leaving the texture static rather than giving it contrasting dynamics. The lentils were room temperature and slightly underdone (though Amy really liked them), and the cherry jus was just savory, neither sweet nor tart enough to compliment the foie. It was Almost there, just poorly executed. (The pork belly, though, was fine.)
Here’s a fun thing to do the next time you’re at a nose-bleed expensive restaurant: pull back the tablecloth and take a look at the table upon which you’re dining. Odds are, it’s going to look like this:
There’s a reason they put expensive white linens on these things.
Our main course featured the salmon for me, and one of the specials, rock lobster tails, for Amy. My salmon (with housemade gnocchi, lobster (claw meat), haricot vert, forest mushrooms, tomato fondue (i.e., tomato paste), and a lemon vin blanc) was perfectly cooked and had a crunchy delectable crust. This was probably the second best dish of the night, as it was actually successful (and the correct temperature). There could have been a bit more of the lemon vin blanc, as the gnocchi soaked it all up, but all in all it was a good dish… aside from the last bite. There was a single bit of lobster claw shell that I discovered with my final bite that literally drew blood from the roof of my mouth. Because that’s what you want from a place like this.
Amy’s lobster tails were a mess. The main problem was that they were poorly cooked: the outside edges were medium-well while the interior was rare, making them a wrestling match. The sauce for the tails was a very delicious crab meat and cream sauce. The problem with it was that it didn’t really go, flavor-wise, with the lobster. Amy longed for the cask of drawn butter from our recently-cleared appetizer (or the drawn butter that had been advertised when she ordered the lobster), if only to have something that would accentuate, rather than obliterate, the taste of her entree.
To go along with our entrees we ordered the “Mac-N-Cheese”, macaroni, Tillamook cheddar, and black truffles. Like Amy’s lobster and the foie gras before it, this dish wasn’t anywhere near hot enough. And as for black truffle, there was more flavored oil than actual truffle here. I have no idea if it was good or not: it just wasn’t hot, and potentially the right temperature would have saved this leaden brick.
We kicked around the idea of dessert, and, after coming down on the side of ‘Yay’, Amy ordered a port, and I ordered the delicious dessert wine trio, made up of (from right to left in the photo below) Inniskillin, Ice Wine, Riesling, 2007; Far Niente, Dolce, 2006; and Chateau Coutet, Sauternes-Barsac, 2006.
For dessert we had what M calls an Apple Pie (“[w]arm apples, almond crumbles, Apple Jack ice cream (vanilla bean ice cream mixed with Apple Jack Liquor), and cider caramel”). Perhaps we should have been warned by the description that this would only be “warm” rather than “hot”, and like our other too-cool courses, the dessert suffered as a result. It should have been piping. The flavors were nice, and I’ll have to make an Apple Jack ice cream in the near future, but this dessert was completely forgettable.
There were so many opportunities for M to shine, but there wasn’t a single dish that didn’t have, at best, distracting, and at worst, completely undermining issues. Food at this level (and by “at this level” I mean “at this price”) shouldn’t have these problems. (Amy said, upon reading this, she would have given the place a B+ had it been half as expensive.) It’s not too much to expect food to be served at proper temperatures, to expect shells to be completely removed, and to expect to have a dinner that doesn’t have a floorshow involving a dead tissue video. M is almost good. But almost doesn’t count here. At all.
^1 I know this is total self-aggrandizement, but it was part of the conversation Amy and I had while we dined. Once you’ve had foie gras at a place critically lauded the world round, you tend to notice what’s not working.
^2 Twenty-four hours after posting this, as I was closing out windows on my laptop, I figured out how to mute the music. If you mouse over the streaming video, the option to mute pops up.